Monthly Archives: April 2016

Practice and Practicality

[This post isn’t about anything to do directly with time or illusion (except perhaps the loss of the latter over the former), but it’s still about things I think are important in academia.]

Here’s a story I’ve never told anyone, and am not proud of. But it’s been years and it illustrates something I think is important.

I started off doing Physics, taking it along with Maths and Computer Science in my first year. I continued into my second year but only to ordinary level. I was a lazy undergraduate. I did almost no work, and continued falling to that standard throughout. Even when I switched to philosophy — which was and is much more suited to me — I did not work. On my graduation, the head of my department told me they had to give me the grade I got because I handed up no assignments in my second year, and that year’s result was a part of my final grade. And I didn’t do much work in third year either.

During this time, I was pretty much indifferent to this failure, since I was going through a subjectively much deeper – but in the long run less important – crisis. During college — especially in the last year — I was in the makings of a band. We practiced three times a week. A few months before finals, the band fell apart (for unavoidable reasons which was no one in the band’s fault).

Suddenly, I was lost, uncommitted to college and no other idea what to do with my life. After that came a bad time, especially as I felt then like I certainly deserved it (I felt like a complete fool and a parasite). And I continued like that in that mindset for several years.

But back up a little bit, to the transition from physics.

I didn’t simply drop from honours first year to second year. In a hem-hawing fashion typical of myself as an undergrad, I actively dragged myself down. I did no study, panicked in the exam,  but got a second chance to repeat in the Autumn. I met the department head. He told me if I got more than 60% I could continue into honours. I didn’t. I got 50%. Yet, I worked quite hard in the Autumn. I did better in other repeat exams (remember, I was doing badly in everything, doing no work at all).

So did this mean I was no good at physics? I don’t know. But I was no good at exams, or understanding what was wanted.

If I remember it right, here’s what happened: I got enough answers right to get more than 60%. However,  for one question  — I remember it involved a rotating wheel — although I got the answer right (and the dept. head agreed afterwards), the examiner didn’t give me full marks. Here is why: I didn’t answer the question properly.

I remember the question (will probably never forget it in general terms): I looked at the question and realised the question could be answered using relatively simple, pass-level physics. There was no need to use relatively complex, honours-level physics. So I answered it using pass-level physics. And the examiner knocked marks off because I didn’t solve it using the more complicated physics.

Afterwards, talking the dept head, I explained myself, and he suggested I call down to the examiner to explain what happened. I headed down there, got as far as his door, then withdrew. I’m not sure why, but the fight was out of me. At the time, I’d a hard time believing that failure wasn’t deserved. (I believed that a lot those days.)

Okay, so what’s the reason for this glum little story?

It’s this:

If I were working in a physics lab, or under a deadline, maybe it would be better if I used the pass-level analysis. This is what satellite scientists do sending things to other planets. They don’t draw on relativity, they draw on Newtonian physics. It’s simpler. It works, so it will do.

The physics department didn’t want this from me. I wasn’t actually sending anything real anywhere. I was doing an exam. They wanted to know could I do complex physics, not could I answer the question in as simple way as possible.

Whatever about the second ability, I failed the first in their eyes. As that’s what the exam was for, and what they were looking for in an honours student, I failed to show I could be an honours student.

The moral is about practice vs practicality. As a student, you are showing that you have practiced. What you do is a sign of your ability, of your knowledge, your grasp of concepts and so on. But as a professional, or post-student, this is assumed. Now you must show that you can use these to go further.

As a student, you show your grasp of the hammer; as a professional, you hit the nail.

Simplicity and complexity.

Of course, even professionally, you want to show you know your stuff. And you also want to understand it more deeply. So you’ll continue to practice. But you are also using it for something, and knowing the difference between practicing and doing is important.

In philosophy (and maybe other disciplines), this difference is as follows:

Sometimes, there are very complex ways of thinking through a problem to a solution. Engaging with that requires skill and understanding.  It can also be fun. But that doesn’t mean it’s the best way to the solution.

Sometimes, it’s better to be simple. To use pass-level philosophy, as it were. The important thing is to recognise when the honours-level is unnecessary.

Like in my summer exam: I recognised that it was unnecessary to use honours-level for the correct answer. However, I wasn’t a professional physicist being asked to come up with the answer as efficiently as possible. I was a student being asked to show my understanding of complex solutions.

As is typical with many arrogant kids, I didn’t think of myself as a student really. I gave them the practical answer. My failure — and indeed failure for at least a few more years to come — was in my recognition of what I was in the situation. I was blind to my position, to what others want from me.

Lots of people can be like that one time or another — that is, blind to their position and to what others want. I think it can be useful to be this way. It is itself more efficient to be this way, to ignore what others think about or want from you.

It works when you’re defining a position, when what is happening is determined by what you want. Like when you are the only expert in the room about what works.

But that is not a common role to play in most of social discourse. Furthermore, even if it is right — you are the one who is the expert, for example — you only get that social position, and such things as relevant credit, if others recognise you for that.

A lot of practice is constrained by others’ summed opinions, rather than your own ability. But you can’t really expect others to recognise that. If you understand the material, you’re probably better than others think you are. But it doesn’t mean they’re wrong to judge you otherwise. They aren’t with you all the time. They don’t know what you’re capable of. So you can’t expect them to judge you based on that. Only what you show them does the trick.

And sometimes… well, it is likely, even in practice, you’ll be faced with a situation where you might have to choose between showing others something you can do and doing what will work. If you’re serious about doing it, you’ll choose doing what works over showing something that works. But you won’t be easily rewarded for this. If you’re serious, you’ll have many occasions to feel hard done by.

It is important to understand what is happening when that arises, and see how irrelevant that feeling is. Yes, sometimes you are being underserved – but often, it isn’t intentional, it is a product of different stakeholders’ knowledge and of how the relevant resources are organized and checked.

If you want to stick with doing things right, I recommend you prepare for the following:

  • Never getting what you consider a just reward (whatever that is)
  • Watching others genuinely less able than you getting ahead, because they focus on showing how good they are
  • Watching others genuinely less principled than you getting ahead, because they are willing to compromise
  • Giving up on social and institutional systems of recognition, even if they are ostensibly organized to encourage and support people like you

That way, you can also put aside irrelevant and distracting stuff like feeling like an imposter, a fraud, a fool, and all the other things others may very likely judge you to be. You can stop relying on or hoping for support from such systems. You can focus on what you think is important, whatever works to do this work – whatever it might be.

Maybe you’ll get the satisfaction eventually of a biopic or a revisionary history about your area, as what you think and do shatters your area with its simplicity and depth. Maybe not. But does that really matter? Must you be acknowledged somewhere or somehow to do this? Certainly, it makes life easier – other people pay for your conference flights and hotels, your job in a university or institute, your record deal, book deal, tv show.

But would you want such support and yet have compromised on doing bad work? In the end, bad work is no work at all. It doesn’t do. It isn’t worth the effort talking about it. It might be worth the effort doing it, because how much effort does it take, really. It is the kind of work that, once the headiness of its apparent social impact evaporates, it isn’t worth a damn. It is as enlightening as an aphorism or a pun.

And imagine living your life knowing what you do isn’t worth a damn? Surely that’s worse than being ignored, having no recognition or support? Again, others don’t have to live with you all the time. But you do have to live with you all the time. If you are as good as you think you are, you’ll spend most of your time with someone who doesn’t respect or support you, who thinks your work is no good: you.

If you do the work at all, it is practical* to focus on good work to the detriment of others’ recognition of how good that work is.


Of course, it may be more practical to not do the work at all, and to do something else. That is always another option.